Namibians have made it to the end of the long journey to establish the Sperrgebiet National Park, a 2.6 million-hectare protected area that is the largest single-area proclamation in Africa in the past 20 years.
If Namibian conservationists have their way, the development will be a stepping stone toward a multi-nation coastal protected area.
The Sperrgebiet, a portion of the Succulent Karoo biodiversity hotspot that runs along the southwestern part of the Namibian coast, has been largely under the control of the mining industry for the past 100 years, and its designation of the area as off-limits to most people kept much of it pristine.
The park supports nearly a quarter of Namibia’s plant diversity on less than 3 percent of the country’s land surface. It includes large tracts of unspoiled dune, plains and mountain scapes, and is home to antelopes, brown and spotted hyenas (Hyaena brunnea
and Crocuta crocuta
), Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus
), and a variety of birds, reptiles and invertebrates.
More than 1,000 plant species occur in the area, of which some 130 species are found only here. Several reptiles and invertebrates are also restricted to this area or its immediate surroundings.
Namibian officials formally established the park on Dec. 1, and will hold a ceremony to officially launch the park on Feb. 5, 2009.
“We were delighted, because we’ve been working on it for so long,” said Chris Brown, executive director of the Namibia Nature Foundation
(NNF), about the establishment of the park. The organization has been working on conservation of the area since the mid-1990s, promoting and supporting sustainable management and use of the area. “We’ve been building and building and building toward this point,” Brown said.
Both the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund
and Conservation International’s Global Conservation Fund supported partners in Namibia to prepare and plan for the gazettement and future management of the park.
The Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Program
(SKEP), coordinated in Namibia by NNF, worked with several government agencies, Namdeb Diamond Corporation and other mining interests to secure the Sperrgebiet National Park. NNF also worked to raise awareness of conservation issues and support local communities in developing sustainable livelihoods.
The chief challenges, said Brown, were getting the mining interests, government officials and communities to buy into the process, and making them comfortable that no one was being excluded from the plans for the park.
Bigger protected areas are important from a climate change point of view, Brown said, allowing better adaptation, as the natural areas can serve as a buffer to change.
The establishment of the park also takes place at a time when tourism has become the most important sector of the Namibian economy after mining, helping to provide employment opportunities as local mining operations wind down.
“Namibia has one of the fastest growing tourism sectors in the world right now,” Brown said.
A couple of things have happened in parallel with the park that will further fuel tourism growth, Brown said: development of tourism routes, such as Cape Town to Windhoek, and the opening of new border posts between South Africa and Namibia. And now tourists are able to take circular routes through parks in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana.
The government is also exploring the idea of combining the Sperrgebiet with other parks along the coast into one large “Namib Skeleton Coast National Park” divided into four management areas: the Sperrgebiet, Namib-Naukluft, Central Coastal and the Skeleton Coast. If this is accepted, then the resulting “park” will cover 10.7 million hectares, making it the largest protected area in Africa, the sixth largest terrestrial protected area in the world, and the eighth largest protected area overall.
This park in turn links directly to an additional 14 million hectares of land and sea under conservation, including the Richtersveld in South Africa and the Iona National Park in Angola, Brown said. The next huge step in the promotion of both conservation and socio-economic development of the coast would be to explore the possibility of having the entire area registered as a World Heritage Site, he said.
The next major challenge, Brown said, is to establish effective co-management approaches between different land owners and custodians across large landscapes to unleash and optimize the biodiversity and economic values of the land.
“We keep looking ahead,” Brown said.